In last winter's prelude to the war in Iraq, a casual observer could have concluded that strident opposition was the stuff of street protests, op ed pages and a lone septuagenarian senator from West Virginia. Boasting 51 years in D.C., Robert Byrd became an Internet sensation for his eloquent denunciations of the Bush administration's rush to unilateral war.
"We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events," Byrd told the Senate in February 2003. "On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare -- this chamber is silent."
Suddenly the Senator who was best known for his KKK membership found himself an overnight dove icon. But what Byrd's anti-war perorations really served to highlight -- though not half as well as Michael Moore does in Fahrenheit 911 -- is the paucity of opposition from fellow Democrats.
In his new book, Byrd raises this issue repeatedly, yet never bothers to resolve it. The problem is that Byrd's oratory is married to its context, which is to say that after countless books and editorials playing out the arguments for and against "the Bush Doctrine" of preemptive war, Byrd's rhetoric does not merit a close reread. With a fifth of this book serving as a compendium of his speeches, Losing America smacks of publishing industry opportunism more than a contribution to the debate.
Had Byrd's book been a My Life-styled mea culpa, such ramblings would be par for the course, perhaps even enjoyable. However, Losing America is marketed as a harangue comparable to the litany of tomes that have emerged from the likes of comic activists like Michael Moore and Al Franken, liberal pundits like Joe Conason and David Corn and Bushie apostates Paul O'Neil and Richard Clarke. Within such a niche, Losing America lacks the humor of the Moore-Franken set, the nuance of Conason and Corn and the insider access of the apostates.
With the centrist hawks of The New Republic recanting their war support, Michael Moore's movie stirring up the pop and a Bush administration furiously, if not effectively, still adamant on ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq, it appears the rigorous debate Byrd wanted before last March has finally arrived.